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What does child marriage have to do with agriculture?

This post was written by Zene Mesfin, Jaime Jarvis, and Lyn Messner of EnCompass LLC, for the Feed the Future Advancing Women’s Empowerment (AWE) Program

 “I don’t remember much about my wedding, just that there was a big party and I was carried to it in an ornate carriage. I was 8 years old …” (Nepal)

Gender-based violence is a broad concept that can be difficult to wrap our heads around, particularly in sectors such as agriculture and food security, where it is often a hidden factor. It’s also a sensitive subject, as the line between longstanding cultural practices and actions that cause harm can seem blurry. Child marriage is one of those practices.

Consent as the cue

“I regret the day I sent my 12-year-old daughter, Fatima, away to live with a 65-year-old man. … But he was a successful farmer in the village, and he paid a good dowry …” (Nigeria)

Let’s think of it this way. Child or early marriage is a marriage, or the promise of a marriage, that occurs before one of the parties reaches the “age of consent.” Despite broad agreement, the international community is still working toward consensus on what the age of consent is. Meanwhile, forced marriage is marriage, at any age, that occurs without the free and full consent of both parties; it therefore includes child and early marriage.

In either case, the inability to give full consent is the key to understanding that child, early, and forced marriage, or CEFM, are all forms of gender-based violence. As USAID powerfully states, “CEFM is a human rights violation that … stifles boys’ and girls’ abilities to grow into empowered men and women who are able to better themselves, their families, and their communities.”

CEFM not only adversely affects women’s and girl’s health and education outcomes; it also leads to inequitable distribution of household resources, decreased earning potential, and creates gaps in gains and returns from agricultural productivity.

How food insecurity can exacerbate CEFM

“It was the flood that ensured that my first year as a teenager would also be the first year of my married life.” (Malawi)

Food insecurity and poverty in the agriculture sector can lead families to resort to CEFM as an attempt to conserve already limited resources. When communities experience floods, droughts, or other shocks, a family might see CEFM as a way to ease the financial pressure, having fewer mouths to feed, while placing their daughter in a more food-secure household. In countries where CEFM is already occurring, economic pressures from shocks to the agriculture sector can exacerbate incidents of CEFM.

In many rural contexts, young brides are also pressured to have frequent pregnancies, increasing the number of hands to contribute to the family farm. Research shows that young brides and their children experience higher rates of malnutrition than those who marry later, as well as lower levels of educational attainment and less access to agricultural training and resources, perpetuating a cycle of food insecurity and poverty.

A model for understanding CEFM in agriculture

The socio-ecological model provides a method for understanding some of the key (and often hidden) factors that contribute to an individual’s risk of CEFM, so you can design programs and interventions that address those factors. The model is organized by four levels of risk: individual, family, community, and policy and institutions.

At a glance, the traditional socio-ecological model can feel complex, but it doesn’t have to be. Simply reorienting the model, as we have done below, can help you visualize the root causes across a system as you assess whether, where, and how CEFM “shows up” in each area. Recognizing that CEFM occurs as a result of a complex set of relationships among wider structural issues, social norms, and deep-rooted beliefs and behaviors that shape gender and authority, the model can help you think about a holistic approach to preventing and responding to CEFM in agriculture and food security programming.

In agriculture programs and interventions, applying the socio-ecological model can help you identify areas of CEFM prevention and response, as well as opportunities to link with other programs working at different levels of the system:

  • At the individual and family levels, agriculture programs can target women and girls already in early or forced marriages, or at least ensure they are invited and included as participants to benefit from access to training, tools, and other interventions to improve agricultural livelihoods. Depending on the community’s needs and norms, this could involve strategies like having female extension workers or demonstration farmers, or providing childcare. Programs might also be able to incorporate messages or link with resources on early marriage for men (who often make decisions on their daughters’ marriages, or marry underaged brides themselves) and communities with which the program already engages.
  • At the family and community levels, agriculture programs can focus their efforts on diversifying crops or animals, and on water management to build families’ and communities’ resilience to shocks that could put their livelihoods at risk and lead them to consider CEFM.
  • At the level of policy and institutions, agriculture programs can work with government entities (or provide input to other programs working at this level) to draft laws and advocate for policies against CEFM — for example, increasing the age of consent to 18, or naming CEFM as a form of gender-based violence under the law — and implementing existing policies for preventing and responding to CEFM.

To learn more about CEFM in agriculture and food security and how to apply the socio-ecological model, we’ve included several resources in the sidebar of this post. The Feed the Future Advancing Women’s Empowerment (AWE) Program team can support your program or mission to integrate priorities related to preventing and responding to CEFM and other forms of gender-based violence in agriculture programs. Check out AWE’s Menu of Services for ideas.

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